Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 8, 2013

Growing grapes, learning the biz

Special to the Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Sherman Atkinson is working toward a dream: his son Patrick’s dream.

“My son works for Boeing out on the west coast and he went to Viticulture School at the University of California-Davis at night and on weekends,” Atkinson said. “His dream is to have a vineyard.”

Michigan is attracting others who share that same dream, as news spreads about the success of the state’s wine industry. Wine grape acreage doubled over the past decade, according to a recent USDA report, making Michigan the fifth-largest wine grape producer in the nation.

Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council members anticipate growth to continue. About 2,650 acres were devoted to wine grapes in 2011 and that number is expected to reach 10,000 acres by 2024.

The expanding industry created demand for education about wine grapes. In response, Michigan State University Extension will host a Wine Grape Vineyard Establishment Conference on Jan. 21-22, 2014 at the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station.

“We know that wine grape growing is a high investment business,” said Erwin “Duke” Elsner, a small fruit educator with MSU Extension. “This is not a simple matter. It takes a high commitment in time and dollars. People need to understand what they’re getting into.”

Elsner said the conference is designed for newcomers to the grape and wine industry. Basic topics include site selection and preparation, establishment costs, planting stock, trellis construction and pest management. The conference will be held concurrently in Traverse City, Benton Harbor and Novi, with speakers connecting in a webinar format. Some speakers will be at each site for personal interaction with participants.

“We’ll also be discussing non-traditional varieties, such as super cold-hardy grapes, and we’ll have Black Star Farms winemaker Lee Lutes discussing marketing options. We’ll have some wine tasting, too, because we feel that’s important,” said Elsner.

The timing is good for Atkinson, who plans to attend the conference and gather as much information as he can about the business. He and his son are working to fulfill their dream on their 30-acre piece of land on the Old Mission Peninsula.

“It’s the old Jolly McManus cherry farm,” said Atkinson. “It had 40-year-old cherry trees that had been abandoned for a number of years. We did a soil analysis and had vineyard management people take a look at the spot. It turned out that the slope and the direction of the slope is ideal for planting grapes.”

The father and son team removed about 600 cherry trees so far and plan to remove another 600 this spring. Then, they’ll plant sorghum and rye to prepare the soil and plant grapes in about three years.

“My son is educating me,” Atkinson said. “But the conference will be helpful, as I’ll be the one overseeing the vineyard when it begins.”

“A significant investment is required and the more you can learn about the whole process of growing grapes, the more likely you’ll be successful in the endeavor,” he said. “It’s important to gather as much research as you can to help you make as few mistakes along the way as possible.”

For information about the 2014 Wine Grape Vineyard Establishment Conference, contact Duke Elsner at 231-922-4822 or, or visit